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PALM LATITUDES

MELTING POT : Captain of His Fate

August 01, 1993|Gordon Dillow

Say you're planning a little ocean voyage and you need some work done on your boat--your 50-year-old, 85-foot wooden boat. You're probably going to call Dinko.

Dinko Bilicich is the vice president and yard superintendent at Wilmington Marine Service. The boatyard on the Wilmington waterfront is one of the few places in Southern California where rich people who choose to diminish their wealth by owning large wooden pleasure boats can find the artisan skills required to keep the boat in the water and the water out of the boat.

"It's a dying art," says Bilicich, 57, a native of Croatia who learned boat-building at his father's knee. "I got a caulker here, he's been learning it since 1959. It takes time."

Steaming and bending wood, caulking, fitting planks--the skills required in wooden boat repair are as arcane as the terminology: dutchmen, scarphs, carlings, scantlings. Many of Bilicich's 14 yard-workers and shipwrights are also from Croatia, where knowledge of wooden boats is passed from generation to generation; Bilicich is teaching his son Dinko Jr., 25, the business. Recently, he replaced the bottom on the 85-foot motor yacht Dry Martini, which was built by the Navy as an air-sea rescue boat in 1944. Estimated bill: about $150,000.

"You don't have to be too wealthy to buy a big wooden boat," Bilicich says, "but you have to be rich to own one." A wooden 85-footer in good-condition can be bought for $250,000, but generally, you spend 20% of the boat's value every year for maintenance. Despite the expense, there has been a renewed interest in resurrecting wooden boats of this size, which makes Dinko and his team very happy.

"There are only two places where they can do this kind of Old World quality work," says Frank Davenport, whose 43-foot wooden sailboat Guayacan was in Bilicich's yard for repairs. "One place is what used to be Yugoslavia, and the other place is here. And Yugoslavia would be a long tow."

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